Q&A: How did an Oireachtas golf gathering become a major controversy?

What are the rules for groups in hotels, and what have those who attended to say for themselves?

Senator Donie Cassidy: he  said “it was not our intention to disregard Government or health authorities’ advice”.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Senator Donie Cassidy: he said “it was not our intention to disregard Government or health authorities’ advice”. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

A dinner following a golf outing has seen the Fianna Fáil deputy leader resign from Cabinet, Ireland’s European commissioner carefully explain his movements since returning from Brussels, and the judgment of a Supreme Court justice called into question. The Garda is also investigating. What is going on?

What exactly are the rules now for gatherings in hotels?

Under phase three of the so-called roadmap to reopening Ireland, indoor gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned since the end of June.

Earlier this week that restriction was further tightened by the Government. On Tuesday, the day before the Oireachtas Golf Society’s dinner, it was announced that indoor gatherings must be capped at six people. The only exceptions are weddings and cultural events, such as plays, concerts and shows, where up to 50 people are allowed to attend if strict distancing and hygiene controls are in place. As for restaurants, including hotel restaurants, a maximum of six people are permitted at a table.

However, the Irish Hotels Federation said the pre-existing rules apply until updated “operational guidelines” are published, likely next week. Gardaí are investigating any potential breaches of Covid-19 laws that occurred.

Does this mean the Oireachtas Golf Society breached both the old and the new rules?

More than 80 people attended the dinner at the Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, including the then minister for agriculture Dara Calleary, who has resigned from Cabinet over his attendance, and Seanad leas-cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer, who has stepped down from his position.

The table plan for the event, according to the Irish Examiner, listed 82 people for the dinner, with up to 10 at some tables. If you include staff, which the restrictions say should be factored in when calculating maximum numbers, the gathering was attended by many multiples of the latest recommended number permitted and comfortably more than the previous cap of 50.

What have those who attended to say for themselves?

Former TD and Senator Donie Cassidy, the president of the society, apologised “unreservedly” on its behalf , and said “it was not our intention to disregard Government or health authorities’ advice”.

“I have been legally advised not to make any further comment at this time. I confirm that I will fully co-operate with the Garda investigation,” he added.

Former RTÉ radio presenter Sean O’Rourke also apologised for attending the dinner. “I don’t have a defence. I was invited to play golf and I really didn’t consider it beyond that, other than to assume whatever was happening would be acceptable from a public health point of view.”

Independent TD Noel Grealish, captain of the society, said he was assured the event was in line with the latest public health guidelines, but he now realises attending was an error of judgment. He sincerely and unreservedly apologised, as did a number of Senators and councillors who attended.

Mr Calleary apologised to the country, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Government for having “undermined” the national effort to combat the spread of Covid-19. Mr Buttimer admitted he had made “a serious lapse of judgment”.

Wasn’t someone who works in Brussels there?

EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan was in attendance, but insists this is not a resigning matter for him. The former Fine Gael minister said he self-isolated in Co Kildare after returning from Brussels last month and then attended a medical appointment in Dublin before convalescing in Kilkenny for a period and later attending the society’s dinner in Galway.

He said he only went to Clifden “on the clear understanding that the organisers and the hotel concerned” had been assured by the Irish Hotels’ Federation that the arrangements in place would comply with the Government guidelines.

Mr Hogan on Friday night apologised for any distress his attending the dinner had caused and the EU Commission has stood by him. A spokeswoman said “with hindsight, had he known it would not be in compliance with rules and guidelines established by the Irish authorities, he would not have attended it because it is important for him to act responsibly in matters regarding Covid-19”.

And what were those assurances from the Irish Hotels’ Federation?

In a statement on Friday the federation said it advised all its members that the “status quo” remained until further notice, allowing a maximum of 50 people at indoor events, including hotel staff and any other event support workers.

“Multiple gatherings are allowed in venue facilities provided they are in separate defined spaces and there are systems to prevent intermingling in common spaces (e.g. entrances, exits and toilet facilities),” it said, adding that it was down to “each individual hotel” to comply with the rules.

It is understood that the room was divided into two by a partition during the dinner with fewer than 50 people at either side. Sources say the partition was pulled back for speeches.

Was a senior judge there too?

Yes. Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe was present. He was attorney general earlier in the pandemic when the original restrictions were being drawn up.

The judge said he was not aware there was to be a dinner after the game of golf, but on learning about it, it was his understanding “that the organisers and the hotel had satisfied themselves that they would be operating within Government public health guidelines”.

He said he would never disregard public health advice, and that “I do apologise for any unintentional breach of any of the new guidelines on my part”.

Dr Anthony Staines, professor of health systems at Dublin City University, labelled the actions of attendees as “reckless and dangerous”, and said Mr Woulfe had “serious questions to ask himself” in his role as a senior member of the judiciary.